Many people love The Rap of China, streaming platform iQIYI’s breakout hip hop reality show. But it has plenty of haters, too. Despite the controversy it’s stirred up over the course of two seasons, the program has improved many rappers’ living conditions, directly or indirectly, helping them to develop their careers and — I dare say — accelerating the progress of China’s hip hop industry.
So as auditions take place across the country (and worldwide) for season 3, the show’s anticipated return ought to be a big deal, right? Well, not exactly….
Following last year’s Season 2 — which was full of “positive energy,” peace and love — the Rap of China alumni seem to be doing well. Shanghai’s OG Cee, Yunnan battle king Young Dragon, and Sichuanese melodic rapper Jello Rio all dropped EPs or albums over the past few months. Lexie Liu’s latest EP 2030 was released at the beginning of February on 88Rising, and she recently collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent:
Lexie Liu x YSL
On the performance side, Young Dragon is currently touring Canada; VINIDA will kick off a China tour on April 6; and Chongqing rapper Bridge has just started a world tour along with his crew-mate and producer K-Eleven from the label GO$H.
Next month, we’ll see more former Rap of China contestants including GAI, VAVA, Tizzy T, Young Jack, and Blow Fever taking the stage for large-scale hip hop festivals across China, such as AYO! in Chengdu and YOLO in Guangzhou. Looking overseas, GO$H, Jony J, and CDC members Higher Brothers and T.Y. will jump on stage for the Rolling Loud hip hop festival in Miami in May, supporting headlining slots by the likes of Migos, Travis Scott and Kid Cudi.
Deep lineup on Chengdu’s AYO! Festival next month
Even some Rap of China stars who’ve slipped through the cracks lately are seemingly gearing up for a comeback. Season 1 standout VAVA posted a KTV photo on Weibo a few days ago, in which we see a long-disappeared face: Season 1 co-champion PG One, who recently registered his own company.
PG One’s WeChat account is still doing great, with every post gaining over 100,000 views and tens of thousands of likes within minutes of being posted. Given that last year’s Rap of China second-place finisher Nawu was featured on the popular TV show Singer last month, maybe we can expect to see the first season’s co-champ step back into the limelight in 2019 too.
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Recruitment for the show’s 2019 season kicked off in January, and auditions throughout China’s major cities are now underway. But as far as we can tell, far fewer established rappers have shown up for the auditions, especially compared to last year, when fans thronged the auditions to catch a glimpse of contestants such as Modern Sky’s Young Jack.
Looking at Weibo posts on Rap of China’s official account and industry watcher Rap Shuochangyue Studio, only a few faces can be recognized: Xinjiang rapper and After Journey affiliate BooM, who took sixth place in Season 1, and 18-year-old Double Zhuo, who collaborated with Tizzy T in the first season and just turned old enough to sign up for the competition in accordance with an age requirement implemented last year.
There are also some Season 2 alumni in the mix, such as KeyNG from Shanghai rap crew WalkinDad, who just dropped an album, and JD, the champion of comparably more underground rap contest Listen Up and crew mate of last year’s third-place winner, ICE.
I don’t know if I was the only one who got a feeling of despair after seeing this, but a viral TikTok video of would-be contestant Qiu Yong, who calls himself a “rapper,” really hurt my eyes and ears:
Over the first two seasons of the show, we saw an essential conflict between the “keep it real” mindset and a push towards mainstream recognition. While this conflict still exists, it seems that the interest in the show that kickstarted all the drama is starting to fade. Has Rap of China accomplished its historical mission for the Chinese hip hop scene? Do underground rappers in China still need the show at all? Where are Chinese hip hop artists going if it’s not Rap of China?
Here are a few key factors affecting the show’s appeal right now:
As we reported in January, MC Jin and After Journey have taken the roles of “rap mentor” and “rap trainer,” respectively, on another iQIYI-produced variety show: Idol Producer. As the name suggests, the show’s aim is to create pop idols, and it’s attracted its fair share of rappers.
Changsha rapper Toy Wong, a Rap of China Season 2 contestant, is currently competing on Idol Producer as one of 38 remaining wannabe idols. Last year, another Rap of China contestant — Wang Linkai, then known as Imp — made it into Idol Producer‘s top nine. As a result he became a member of NINE PERCENT, the boy group that drove tens of millions of fans crazy last year, and likely a far more lucrative move than making the finals of Rap of China.
When it comes to emerging entertainment trends like this, Tencent never seems far behind. In the upcoming season of the company’s popular show Produce 101, which will also seek to mint a brand new a boy group, there will be a rap mentor on hand to help mold the future idols: Stanley Huang, a member of 1992-formed Taiwanese rap crew L.A.BOYZ. A real OG.
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On Alibaba-owned video streaming platform Youku meanwhile, a new musician competition program called CHUANG (“This! Is Original”) began airing on March 9, and has also attracted some rappers to its ranks. Round_2, a rap duo from Nanjing-based crew Free-Out, has gained favor from one of the show’s three judges, Jackson Wang. Swaggie — a female rapper, former street dancer, and Rap of China Season 1 contestant — can also be found among the artists competing on CHUANG.
Since appearing on Rap of China, Yunnan’s Young Dragon has signed to Banana Culture, an artist management company that’s signed a few K-pop groups and Chinese idols. The company was founded by Wang Sicong, the son of one of the biggest names in China’s entertainment industry: Wanda CEO Wang Jianlin. According to her bio on Weibo, Swaggie is now signed to STARMASTER, a Chinese agent that manages future idols.
Young Dragon album cover
Besides big labels like Modern Sky — who signed Tizzy T, VINIDA, and Young Jack — rap crews and even some individual rappers have started building their own record labels. Examples include Beijing crew Purple Soul’s Undaloop Records, AR’s All That Records, JelloRio’s OTTO, and the newly-founded Chengdu imprint GoodVibesOnly Music.
After resolving a lawsuit with former label Modern Sky, Xi’an rap crew HHH launched their own music streaming app JU XING to release their songs without any possible copyright issues.
Higher Brothers’ success in the US has shown that it’s possible for Chinese rappers to gain recognition outside of China. Besides the upcoming Rolling Loud festival in Miami, we recently saw a group of Chinese rappers at this year’s SXSW festival in Austin, including Yehaiyahan, Akin, Kucci, LowsOn, NineOne# and YOUNG13DBABY, who were brought together in a showcase organized by newly founded hip hop label WR/OC.
Short video app TikTok might not be the ideal platform for a serious rapper, but with a baseline audience in the hundreds of thousands (and now a music label arm), it might be tempting for would-be rappers to jump on TikTok to boost their career. Take Guangzhou-based artist AY as an example: the 23-year-old rapper first broke out on TikTok with her song “Fool Myself,” and has since performed at numerous music festivals in China. AY will be in tow for the AYO! festival in Chengdu next month, for example.
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And the ones who didn’t want to have anything to do with the show won’t join this year, as always.
On hip hop talk show StraightBooming, Xi’an rapper and two-time Iron Mic champion (and 2018 Rap of China contestant) PACT spoke about his change of mindset regarding the Chinese hip hop scene and last year’s season:
“After going through so much in this music industry, I think I have seen it thoroughly… After all, making music is a service industry, which serves either others or yourself… No need to talk about any sense of mission, just do it. Rap music belongs to young people, so just let them do whatever they wanna do. I’m already 27, so we just do what we can do to help them… We are just peaceful people… To those who think this season [Rap of China Season 2] is less real than last year, how about you ask last season’s rappers to come be real in this season? And diss tracks against Kris Wu… are they really good?”
“After going through so much in this music industry, I think I have seen it thoroughly… After all, making music is a service industry, which serves either others or yourself… No need to talk about any sense of mission, just do it. Rap music belongs to young people, so just let them do whatever they wanna do. I’m already 27, so we just do what we can do to help them…
We are just peaceful people… To those who think this season [Rap of China Season 2] is less real than last year, how about you ask last season’s rappers to come be real in this season? And diss tracks against Kris Wu… are they really good?”
It seems that Chinese rappers are starting to acknowledge the limits of the platforms that they’ve chosen to help spread their work — and that they’re learning to use more channels to reach different audiences.
As for Rap of China Season 3: there are still several months to go before the judges are revealed and the contest begins. Though that’s not stopped speculation about who will (or rather, will not) be heading up this year’s contest.
“The Rap of China” Rumored to be Returning Without Kris Wu in 2019
While there are fewer established rappers attracting early attention to the new season, the relative lack of star power could also give new blood more space to gain popularity with their raw talent. For better or worse, it’ll definitely be a different year for Rap of China contestants.
Cover image: chinaxiaokang.com
More on Chinese Hip Hop:
The History of Rap in China, Part 1: Early Roots and Iron Mics (1993-2009)
The History of Rap in China, Part 2: Hip Hop Goes Mainstream (2010-2019)
MC Tingbudong Wants Chinese Hip Hop to Find its Place in the World
“A Pivotal Moment in Asian Music History”: 88rising Founder Talks Higher Brothers and Worldwide Flex
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